Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Jordan's Stormy Banks made Calm

The stony path from the parking lot to the banks of the River Jordan is about five feet wide with cut branches tied together for flimsy handrails. It winds through an area of woods and grasses watered by underground springs, but were this year, very brown due to a lack of rain and dried up springs. Only forty years ago, the same area was filled with land mines as Jordan was trying to delineate its own borders with the United Nations newly created state of Israel. Fifteen hundred years ago, it was bustling with churches, monastic communities and vendors of holy relics as pilgrims made their way from Jericho to Bethany on a pilgrimage of the holiest sites in the area. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, ordered and funded the building of churches at the various sites deemed sacred from their biblical importance. One could look off to the north and see the now vacant caves where for the centuries prior to Helena’s visit, hermits and ascetic Christians lived in devotion to our Lords baptismal site.

The Jordan is a meandering river, which means it changes course over the span of several centuries. It is now about 75 yards from the site where the first chapel was built on the banks of the river. A newly constructed Greek Orthodox Church now provides the shadow over the river where pilgrims and new believers are baptized. The Orthodox Church is the world’s oldest church, pre-dating the Roman Catholic Church (founded in the mid-fifth century by Pope Leo I) by almost four hundred years. Orthodoxy is also the largest Christian community in Jordan. At one point an Orthodox Christian shopkeeper embraced me and thanked us for coming to his country. When I told him we were not Orthodox, he looked at me and said, “But you know Jesus as your Savior.” “Yes,” I responded. “Then we are brothers,” he declared.

When we reached the River, our service began with eight from our group being immersed in the chilly, muddy waters of the Jordan. The narrow river that once was a mile wide now separates Israel and Jordan by about seven feet. On the west side, a vacant visitor’s center still flies the Israeli flag. With the recent archeological find that proves the Baptismal site is in Jordan, Israel has abandoned its claim of ownership. At one point during the baptisms, I looked up to see over fifty people from other tour groups gathered on the banks to witness the baptisms. One couple from another group was actually from Kentucky. How can we explain the power of God’s Spirit that day? Only this: At the end of our service of Baptism and Holy Communion, the Benediction was given and our Muslim Guide joined his voice with ours in the response, “Amen.”